By Chris Lang
Big Polluters are responding to the climate crisis. But that’s not necessarily good news. As a recent report highlights, they are doing so “with the same tricks they have used as part of a decades-long campaign that involves greenwashing themselves as the solution on one hand and deceiving the public while delaying real action on the other”.
The report, titled “The Big Con: How Big Polluters are advancing a “net zero” climate agenda to delay, deceive, and deny” was written by Corporate Accountability, the Global Forest Coalition, and Friends of the Earth International. It was endorsed by more than 60 environmental organisations, including 350.org, Action Aid, FASE, OilWatch, Acción Ecológica, Via Campesina, the Institute for Policy Studies, Indigenous Environmental Network, and Third World Network.
“Net Zero” plans are false solutions
More than 1,500 corporations have made “net zero” commitments. The corporations include some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel polluters (BP, Shell, Total); Big Tech (Microsoft, Apple, Facebook); retailers (Amazon, Walmart); financiers (HSBC, Bank of America, BlackRock) airlines (United, Delta, Air France, Boeing, easyJet); and agro-business corporations (JBS, Nestlé, Cargill).
But as the report points out, far from being part of a solution, these proposed “net zero” plans “could even worsen the climate crisis”.
In a press statement, Sara Shaw of Friends of the Earth International said,
“This report shows that ‘net zero’ plans from big polluters are nothing more than a big con. The reality is that corporations like Shell have no interest in genuinely acting to solve the climate crisis by reducing their emissions from fossil fuels. They instead plan to continue business as usual while greenwashing their image with tree planting and offsetting schemes that can never ever make up for digging up and burning fossil fuels. We must wake up fast to the fact that we are falling for a trick. Net zero risks obscuring a lack of action until it is too late.”
Big Polluters are using a series of risky technologies in their “net zero” plans to avoid reducing emissions. These include bioenergy, carbon capture and storage, bioenergy and carbon capture and storage, carbon markets, direct air capture, nature-based solutions, carbon offsets, and hydrogen.
The report also includes a case study on REDD under the headline, “Why REDD+ is just another dangerous distraction”.
The Big Con report includes analyses of several corporations’ “net zero” plans. Shell, for example, has committed to becoming “net zero” by 2050. Oil and gas production will continue to make up a large share of Shell’s operations. Shell plans to use nature-based solutions to offset its emissions. By 2030 Shell hopes to offset 120 million tonnes a year using nature-based solutions. Yet the entire voluntary carbon market in 2019 amounted to only 104 million tonnes.
Shell’s plans include a reforestation programme that will cover an area of land almost the size of Brazil.
Big Polluters’ net zero lobbying strategies
“Net zero” has not become the climate buzzword of the day by accident, or as a result of independent scientific research. Big Polluters have played an important role in ensuring that “net zero” became part of mainstream climate discourse and a key part of the response to the climate crisis from both corporations and governments.
The Big Con report highlights three stategies that Big Polluters have used to ensure that “net zero” displaces real solutions to the climate crisis:
- The buy off: Buy political goodwill to help secure “net zero” policies. In the USA Big Polluters have lobbied to push for a tax credits called 45Q, that subsidises corporations for activities associated with carbon capture and storage – even if the process involves extracting more oil and gas! “In other words,” The Big Con report notes, “this policy financially incentivises polluters for tinkering with false solutions instead of making the adjustments necessary to stop polluting, advance real solutions, and decrease emissions.”
- The lobbyist lock-in: Influence policy to lock in “net zero” agenda. Big Polluters have consistently undermined equitable and strong policy proposal from climate justice activists at the UNFCCC. The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) is leading this push for false solutions. IETA was founded and is still run by Big Polluters such as BP, Shell, and Chevron. IETA exists to push carbon market mechanisms into UN climate policy. Just one example of this is an event organised by IETA in November 2020, “Journey to Net Zero: The Role of the Voluntary Market”, that featured a panel of carbon trading proponents. “The voluntary carbon market has an important role to play in delivering the goals of the Paris Agreement and supporting the journey to Net Zero,” according to IETA’s website for the event.
- The deck stacking: Shape academic research to validate “net zero”. Big Polluters have made large financial contributions to academic institutions including Princeton University, Stanford University, Imperial College London, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Big Con report notes that Exxon has formal relationships with more than 80 academic institutions, Cargill has 63, Chevron and Amazon each have about 10, as do many other Big Polluters.In 2020, Princeton University published a report titled, “Net-Zero America”, with funding from BP and Exxon. In 2018, Exxon committed US$200 million to the Stanford Strategic Energy Alliance. Bank of America, Shell, and Total are also members.
The Big Con must stop
The Big Con report concludes that,
The “net zero” plans of Big Polluters are the latest iteration of the decades-long push by Big Polluters to find a way to continue to pollute and extract profits at the expense of people and the planet. “Net zero” pledges represent Big Polluters’ and Global North governments’ attempts to escape their climate crimes by having others serve their sentence.
“Net zero” schemes exist for the same reason as carbon markets: to preserve Big Polluters’ profits and to allow business as usual to continue for as long as possible. At the same time, Big Polluters are preventing real solutions from being implemented, such as those highlighted in Corporate Accountability’s 2019 report “Real Solutions, Real Zero”.